When the British historian E. J. Hobsbawm died on October 1, 2012, at the age of 95, the “respectable” media on both sides of the Atlantic joined in a chorus of hosannas to his memory. The BBC broadcast an hour-long retrospective. The Guardian ran thousands of words about him, including an exhaustive obituary by Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn, whose first few sentences made him sounds like something just short of a god:
Had Eric Hobsbawm died 25 years ago, the obituaries would have described him as Britain’s most distinguished Marxist historian and would have left it more or less there. Yet by the time of his death…he had achieved a unique position in the country’s intellectual life…he became arguably Britain’s most respected historian of any kind….Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis…he was unrivalled.
No less fulsome was Hobsbawm’s New York Times obituary, by William Grimes, which overflowed with words like “masterwork,” “incisive,” “eloquent.” Nick Higham’s piece for the BBC website was equally fawning.
And the New Yorker ran a cozy tribute by historian Stephen Kotkin, who, calling Hobsbawm “refreshingly serious—intellectually curious and politically engaged—yet un-full of himself,” proceeded to celebrate Hobsbawm’s books, which “put considerable empirical flesh on the classical Marxist bones,” and closed with the admiring observation that “having embraced and never relinquished the passionate early Marx, E. J. Hobsbawm…was in it to change the world.” Hobsbawm, Kotkin concluded, had “long ago become probably the world’s best known living historian, with books translated into some forty languages.”
As those last few sentences suggest, to be sure, there was one ticklish little fact about Hobsbawm: he was a lifelong Stalinist. Most of those who extolled him in the “respectable” media did acknowledge this detail, but they all found curious ways to, shall we say, diminish its importance.
While admitting, for example, that critics saw Hobsbawm as “an apologist for Soviet tyranny,” Higham was quick to add that the late, great Kremlin toady “was too shrewd, too open-minded to pursue a narrow Marxist approach in his work or his politics.” The Guardian obit proffered a strikingly similar “yes, but” formulation on Hobsbawm’s Communism: “Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement….Yet he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks.”
Higham, indeed, referred neutrally and without irony to Hobsbawm’s “Marxist ideals” (can one imagine a writer for the BBC ever citing in this way someone’s “Nazi ideals”?) and quoted then Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s praise for Hobsbawm as “an extraordinary historian, a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of his family” and as a man who “cared deeply about the political direction of the country.” Kettle and Wedderburn, for their part, even saw Hobsbowm as a victim – a man whose university career was hampered by “a very British academic McCarthyism” (read: a disinclination to allow a Stalinist to indoctrinate students).